For Shock’s Sake


In light of it being Banned Books Week, I thought to write something related. I don’t plan on reading a banned book this week, though I’d like to, because I will be too busy writing my own novel; however, I think next year I will review one for my other blog, Cover to Cover.

Books are often banned for language, sexual content, or just being considered unfit. YA books seem to be the most popular targets for obvious reasons: parents and church authorities are very hyper-sensitive to what is taught to children. I don’t believe in banning books, and often wonder why books get so much heat, especially in light of what we see on television. Channels like HBO and STARZ bank on series containing sex, violence, and explicit language—the same things books get banned for. J.D. Salinger dropped the F-word quite a bit in Catcher in the Rye. Some of the same parents who support the ban of this book let their children watch television shows like Hells Kitchen that have the same, if not more profanity.

For the record, I’m not against sex, violence, and language in books, but I think others will agree with me when an excessive use of all of the above gets to be unnecessary, distracting, or down right annoying. The great George R.R. Martin automatically comes to my mind. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy his writing and I’m eagerly awaiting the next season of Game of Thrones, but if you cut out the sex scenes alone, his novels turn into novellas. I’m not offended by the sex, I’m just bored of it and it just begins to feel like filler.

A good writer uses explicit content to make writing real. When it’s not needed, it seems out of place. The same can be said if it is omitted where it belongs. After all, it would break the third wall if a death-row inmate used euphemisms like “darn” to replace stronger words. The reader will not be convinced; rather, the author’s inhibitions will detach the reader from the story. A good writer can distance their own moral or personal believes for the sake of a character or for their story.

In an effort to protect the reader, or due to personal biases, writers have tried to write around the F-word, using alternatives like frack, feck, or fudge. After all, their concern is that a reader may be thrown by the F-bomb, but euphemisms can be distracting, if not down right ridiculous. My opinion is either use the word or don’t. Don’t eat half a cookie. Cram the whole thing in your mouth like Cookie Monster, or leave it on the plate. Personally, I use euphemisms in front of my preschooler, not in my writing.

The other reason writers include controversial content is for shock value. I think we’re running into more of this as writers struggle to write something that hasn’t been done. It’s like the bully at school trying to provoke you just to get a reaction. Writers just want to see how far they can go. When the intent is to cause an intense or drastic feeling of fear, disgust, or shock in the reader, the result is shallow. The effect of this is often short lived and forgettable. Using the elements sparingly makes the effect more profound. Shock value is usually the result of a writer who is worried their writing will be boring. Just like any element of writing, when used to often, anything becomes boring. Do you hear that, George? I’m bored of boobs and butts!

Again, I am no prude. When I was in middle school, I was enthralled by The Woman in the Wall by Patrice Kindl, particularly the scene where the character starts her period.. To this day, I remember that chapter. It just goes to show a little can go a long way. I’ll also never forget when I read my first homosexual paring outside of fanfiction. Many writers avoid these parings because of their own personal biases. Some writers use them merely for shock. I feel that explicit or controversial content needs mature appreciation from both the author and the reader for it to be successful.

So how do you know when to use certain content? It’s an easy answer to a very controversial question. The answer lies in your readers. It should be based on your audience. You will never satisfy everyone. After all, if you are writing a gritty historical novel about the wild west or the Holocaust, you shouldn’t worry about your three-year old niece or your great grandmother. They aren’t your audience. Ask yourself, based on the demographic you’ve chosen for your book, will they be thrown, will they be offended, will they appreciate it. Right now I’m writing a novel that contains violence, sex, and probably a sprinkle of cussing here and there. The audience I’ve selected should be mature adults. Therefore, I’m not worried about whether it is appropriate for teenagers to read or the impact it could have on them. I don’t believe books should be banned (and I doubt mine is bad enough to warrant such a drastic measure) but the immaturity and impressionability of youth, and media’s impact on them is underestimated. Twilight. Need I say more. The reader is always in my mind. After all, I’m not writing for me. I’m writing for them. Listen to what your reader wants. Read customer reviews for books similar to yours. If they aren’t complaining about content, feel free to put in enough bad language to make Gordon Ramsay blush.

As I write, I’m going to keep my readers in mind. So when you get ready to write that steamy sex scene or throw in an f-bomb/d-word combo, consider this: are you being edgy, or just going over the edge?